With vacancies to fill, some companies giving felons a chance
- By JULIE SWIDWA – HP Staff Writer
BENTON HARBOR — When Johnnie Walter got out of prison on parole in May 2017 he didn’t think he’d be able to get a job.
Now, “He’s my biggest success story,” says Carolyn Moscardelli, general manager of Bluewater Thermal Solutions in Benton Harbor.
Thermal Solutions heat-treats steel for mainly the automotive and construction industries. The company has 13 sites in the Midwest. At the Benton Harbor location, seven furnaces run for three shifts, seven days a week. The company will soon add two more furnaces, Moscardelli said.
But Walter wants to, and so does his co-worker Bob Balay. Balay rides his bike to work, and Walter had been walking to work before recently buying a car. Walter said he’s gotten his own place and is paying all his own bills. Balay said he just got his own place.
“I got out of prison in March, and within about two months I was working here. They gave me a chance, and I’ve been busting butt ever since,” Balay said. “Having spent 10 years in prison, I didn’t expect to get a job. I didn’t think anybody would hire me.”
Walter said when he first got out of prison he rode his bicycle to Michigan Works every day to work on job applications. He said he’s “extremely grateful” to have been hired for a job after entering the Offender Success program at Kinexus.
Historically, a person coming out of prison has a hard time getting a job.
But human resources experts say labor shortages in some sectors are prompting employers to consider hiring ex-convicts to fill vacancies, especially in the manufacturing and construction industries.
In Michigan, the Offender Success program strives to put felons to work by matching them with employers who are willing to hire them.
There are 11 providers of the program statewide. One of them is the Region 8 Kinexus office covering Southwest Michigan counties including Berrien, Cass and Van Buren. Derek Knuth, director of Offender Services for Kinexus, said the office boasts a 61 percent job placement rate, 20 percent above the state average and the highest in Michigan.
Jeff Riley, Offender Success employment specialist, said the program is working in large part due to its relationship with parole agents. He said the parole agents are in regular contact with the parolees, making sure they are doing what they are supposed to, including working or looking for work.
Knuth said that in the last 18 months, Kinexus has worked with more than 140 employers in Southwest Michigan who are open to interviewing offenders to possibly fill vacant positions. He said most prefer to keep the information confidential.
Kinexus recently announced that its Offender Success program just had a record year in job placement outcomes. The program delivers a number of other services, including residential stability, health and behavioral health and social support.
Kinexus has been running the Offender Success program, previously known as the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, since 2006. According to the Council of State Governments/Justice Center, Michigan has a recidivism rate of 28.1, the lowest in its history and one of the top 10 lowest rates in the country.
Kinexus CEO Todd Gustafson said that in its first year administering Offender Success region-wide, program participants returned to prison at a rate of just 5 percent.
Knuth said that 95 percent of incarcerated people will eventually return to their communities, and it is the goal of Offender Services that every one of them have the tools needed to succeed.
Tools include stable housing, access to behavioral health programs, social support and job services. Studies have shown that employment after prison is a key factor in ensuring that people do not re-enter the criminal justice system.
Riley said the cost per participant in Offender Success is less than $500. It costs about $30,000 a year to house a prisoner in Michigan.
He said the program’s success depends on its network with the Michigan Department of Corrections, mental and behavioral health experts, area businesses and community organizations that help provide services to give ex-convicts a second chance.
“We’ve been doing this for awhile. Some of it is due to difficulty filling job vacancies. But they have good work ethic, they’re trying to turn their lives around, they want to be here and they want to work,” she said.
Rank said a background check is completed as part of the hiring process, but by then the prospective employee has already been interviewed and some disclose early on that they have a record, Rank said.
Moscardelli said of the 45 employees at Bluewater Thermal Solutions, four have felony convictions on their records.
“It’s hard to find people who want to work. That led me to Kinexus. People with backgrounds who are willing to admit it and willing to work can be good employees. The four I have right now, their attendance is as good or better than anyone else’s,” she said. “These guys come to work every day.”
In some cases, maintaining employment is a condition of parole. Walter recently was released from parole but, he says, that won’t change his attendance or attitude at work.
“We’ll do whatever they want us to do,” he said of himself and Balay. “If they want me to push a broom, I’ll push a broom.”
Convicted felons who are serious about rebuilding their lives can start doing so while still behind bars. The Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia opened the first Vocational Village site in 2016. The Vocational Village is a skilled trades training program that provides a learning community for prisoners who are serious about completing career and technical education. A second site opened in 2017 at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson. The Ionia facility can serve 165 students and the Jackson site has the capacity for 240.
Prisoners participating in Vocational Village programming are housed together in one unit that provides a therapeutic learning environment that supports their success. The prisoners have full days of training and classroom instruction intended to mimic a typical work day outside prison walls, and the participants receive certification in their trade when they are through.
Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa